The teenage traveller who murdered teaching assistant Lindsay Birbeck has been jailed for life and will serve at least 16 years behind bars.
Rocky Marciano Price, 17, named after boxing legend Rocky Marciano, strangled the 47-year-old mother-of-two before hiding her in a wheelie bin and burying her naked body in Accrington cemetery, the same place where his grandfather, who shares his name, and other family members are buried.
Lindsay’s body was eventually discovered by a dog walker, wrapped in two plastic bags, on August 24 last year – 12 days after she went missing from home.
She was identified through dental records and a post-mortem examination concluded the cause of death was neck injuries.
Her naked body was heavily decomposed and no evidence of a sexual assault could be found.
Severe compressive force appeared to have been used, according to a Home Office pathologist, which could have been done in several ways including through stamping or kicking, or kneeling on the front of the neck.
An attempt had also been made to cut off a leg, possibly with a saw, with the judge noting the defendant hadn’t realise how difficult it was to cut off someone’s leg.
Price, who has an IQ of just 65, previously could not be named for legal reasons as he is under the age of 18, granting him automatic anonymity.
But after he was found guilty by a jury at Preston Crown Court on Wednesday, reporters yesterday challenged the restriction due to the severity of the crime and Justice Yip lifted the order.
Sentencing Price to life, she said today: ‘The attack was swift and brutal. I am sure the defendant lay in wait with the intention of killing a passing woman.
‘Why he decided to kill her only he knows. If it had not been Lindsay Birbeck, it could have been someone else.
‘This was the entirely random killing of a stranger.’
Rocky Marciano Price (pictured) previously could not be named for legal reasons as he is under the age of 18, but reporters in court challenged the anonymity order due to the severity of the crime
Lindsay Birbeck, 47, from Accrington, Lancashire, was found buried in a shallow grave at the back of Accrington Cemetery in August last year
He had confessed to burying Lindsay but denied any involvement in her killing, claiming a mystery man had offered him ‘a lot of money’ to ‘get rid’ of a body.
The court found no evidence of this mystery man.
The jury heard he had no previous convictions or cautions and had lived all his life with his parents and five siblings at their home near the cemetery, where the family have lived for 30 years.
It was revealed he was an exceptionally quiet teenager with learning difficulties but he was said to have grown up in a ‘supportive family’ and his specialist needs were provided for.
He attended a local specialist school after he was diagnosed with autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Price was described by teachers as ‘very quiet’ and ‘pretty much non-verbal’, with Timothy Bradley, who taught him for 18 months at The Alternative School, adding he was ‘strong for his age’.
Mr Bradley told the trial: ‘He used to enjoy doing art work. We used to do gardening as well with the local community group or help sand down and varnish a bench.
‘He is a very strong walker. We did the bronze Duke of Edinburgh Award with him which involves walking 13km and camping for a night and then going for a walk the following morning which he would complete no problem. He was definitely a strong lad for his age.’
His usual response to conversation would be to shrug his shoulders but the school did not have any issues with him and he had never shown any signs of anger or violence, the court was told.
A psychologist assessed Price in 2015 and said he had a ‘limited understanding’ of his own emotional wellbeing and appeared to have little insight into the link between events and emotions.
Price regularly attended a gym and preferred to be outdoors at school. He enjoyed taking care of chickens on his family’s farm, watching films, including Western’s, and playing on his Xbox.
He achieved the Duke of Edinburgh’s Bronze Award and it was hoped he could go on to college and take a course in gardening.
Mrs Birbeck with her son Steven, 20. Mrs Birbeck was reported missing by her family just after midnight on August 13 and police started an investigation into her disappearance
Headteacher Kirsty Swierkowski described how Price’s mother Martina was ‘desperately worried about her son’s ability to cope with the world as he grew up’.
She revealed that Mrs Price was looking at the possibility of him studying landscape gardening at Myerscough College when he left The Alternative School.
She told the trial: ‘There was no drama, no kicking off. He just wouldn’t do it. There was no whinging or whining. He’s always been a positive pupil in school. I’ve never had any issues with him.’
The trial also heard from teachers who said Price was well dressed and well presented at school and wasn’t ‘motivated’ by money, unlike some of his school peers.
Mrs Swierkowski said she was first alerted to the CCTV footage of Price with the wheelie bin by another staff member on August 27.
She described Price him as ‘being open to exploitation’ due to his ‘vulnerabilities’ and told police: ‘Rocky has never caused us any issues which is why this has come as a shock.
‘When I was first made aware of this my initial reaction was that he could be asked to do something and he would do it without question.
Prior to her murder, Mrs Birbeck had left her home in for a late afternoon walk to a nearby wooded area known as the Coppice. Pictured: The last CCTV sighting of Ms Birbeck before she was murdered
‘He is somebody who will either do something or not do something but he might not necessarily question what he is being asked to do.’
Speaking today, Justice Yip said: ‘The murder was a truly shocking event. This was a dreadful crime which generated strong public interest.
Who is Rocky Marciano?
Price was named after boxer Rocky Marciano, an American fighter who held the world heavyweight title from 1952 to 1956
The 17-year-old murderer was named after boxing champion Rocky Marciano who is considered one of the greatest fighters of all time.
Mr Marciano was born and grew up in Boston, Massachusetts, and had an underwhelming amateur record of 8-4.
But a is the case for many fighters he excelled in the professional ranks after winning his first fight in 1948.
His most famous victory was against Joe Walcott in 1952 where he became world champion. He was known for his fearsome power and ability to knock opponents out.
Marciano went on to accrue an impressive record of 49 wins, with 43 of them coming by knock out.
He is considered by boxing historians to be one of the greatest heavyweight boxers of all time, and debate rages to this day on if he would have beaten the great Muhammed Ali.
‘The public naturally wish to know who this person was as they come to terms with something that rocked the local community.
‘The defendant’s photograph was already placed in the public domain [as part of a CCTV appeal]. I consider it inconceivable anybody who would wish him ill-harm would not discovery his identity.
‘The wider public are likely to want to know his identity and background with a view to making sense of how such a young person could do something so dreadful.
‘There is a strong public interest in full and unrestricted reporting of what is plainly an exceptional case. The real public interest exists now at the time of conviction and sentence.
‘Continuing reporting restrictions would substantially and considerably restrict the freedom of the press.’
The teenager – named after unbeaten heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano – is from Accrington and lives not far away from the cemetery where Lindsay Birbeck was found.
His parents Martina and Creddy Price were in court for every day that their son had to attend along with other relatives, as reported by the Lancashire Telegraph.
The defence had opposed the application to name Price due to his vulnerabilities. The court heard that Price has already been subject to two ‘attacks’ while on remand at HMP Wetherby.
Barrister Mark Stuart said: ‘Rocky Price’s difficulties are particularly with verbal or the lack of verbal communication and the difficulties he will have within a prison setting.
‘He is about to face now a significant custodial sentence. Not only is it a life sentence but a significant amount of time before his position could be considered by a parole board.
‘He is in a young offenders institute and is a category A prisoner. While some inmates may have some inkling what the position is, the concern is if he is named there is a significant prospect others would find out his name and that could cause him some difficulties.
Mrs Birbeck’s body was found at Accrington Cemetery, which was combed by forensic officers and police for clues
A post-mortem found the mum-of-two, who had left her home for a walk when she went missing, had died as a result of compression of the neck. Pictured: Police search where Mrs Lindsay’s body was found at Accrington Cemetery
Teaching assistant Lindsay Birbeck, 47, was found dead at Accrington Cemetery on the outskirts of the Lancashire town in August last year
First trial was halted after fake confession video
The jury in the first trial of RockyMarciano Price was discharged when police found evidence of someone elseclaiming they were involved in the murder of Lindsay Birbeck.
During the trial at Preston Crown Court inMarch, it emerged that an unconnected investigation into an allegation of falseimprisonment had revealed mobile phone footage of a young man discussing partsof the murder case and saying he was involved with the killing and the disposalof the body.
A new probe involving more than 20 officerswas instigated but it concluded the information on the video clip was false.
Price’s defence team successfully applied todischarge the jury as they submitted their client could not have a fair trialand they needed time to explore the uncovered material.
Trial judge Mrs Justice Yip ruled: ‘Ihave no doubt that the defence must have the opportunity to properly considerthis new information. Had the matter been discovered before this trial it wouldhave been fully investigated, if after, it would have been pursued to the Courtof Appeal on grounds of possible fresh evidence.
‘It’s unusual and unfortunate that theevidence has emerged during the trial.’
The matter was resolved ahead of the secondtrial and reporting restrictions were lifted following Price’s conviction formurder.
Inquiries continue into the unrelated caseafter a 22-year-old man, a 22-year-old woman and a 23-year-old man, all fromAccrington, were arrested on suspicion of false imprisonment and assault beforebeing released under investigation.
‘There is certainly a potential that those in custody may feel a degree of revulsion about what he has done and may even verbally or physically abuse him.
‘It maybe difficult for him to respond and report it to the appropriate authorities.
‘The effect of revealing his name will also have an effect on various members of his family.’
Jury members had previously heard how the teenager, who was 16 at the time, had killed Mrs Birbeck in a woodland before moving her body to Accrington Cemetery in a wheelie bin.
He attended a police station several days after Mrs Birbeck was found, when police released a CCTV clip of a young male pulling a blue wheelie bin behind him on Burnley Road.
He went on to admit dragging the bin from the Coppice on August 17 – with Mrs Birbeck inside – across Burnley Road to the cemetery where he buried her.
Prior to her murder, Mrs Birbeck had left her home in for a late afternoon walk to a nearby wooded area known as the Coppice.
She had invited her teenage daughter, Sarah, and Sarah’s boyfriend over for tea at 6pm.
But when she did not return from her walk, her worried family raised the alarm.
The court heard her attacker had been on the prowl in the woods for lone females and is thought to have killed Mrs Birbeck shortly after she entered the Coppice.
Shortly before Mrs Birbeck entered the Coppice, another woman said she feared for her safety when a lone male wearing a grey tracksuit and his hood up followed her on her walk.
On Wednesday, a jury at Preston Crown Court convicted the youngster guilty of murder after deliberating for more than four hours.
The verdict was returned exactly a year after the murder of Mrs Birbeck, who had split up from her husband and moved to a new home in March last year after she started a new relationship.
The teenager had previously pleaded guilty to assisting in the disposal of her body but claimed he played no role in her death.
Jury members had previously heard how the teenager had killed Mrs Birbeck in a woodland (pictured) before moving her body to the cemetery in a wheelie bin
A 16-year-old boy strangled mother-of-two Lindsay Birbeck and dragged her body through the streets in a wheelie bin before burying her in a cemetery, a court has heard
Mrs Birbeck’s grieving husband, Tim Birbeck, said that his wife’s death has ‘broken’ him
He said he was offered ‘a lot of money’ by a mystery man to ‘get rid of the body’.
Price claimed: ‘I have not met this man before. I have not met him since, nor have I had any contact with him. He has not paid me any money.
‘He told me that he would leave the money for me near where the body had been at first once everything was clear.’
The Crown Prosecution Service did not accept his version of events and said the defendant’s account was ‘implausible fiction’.
Mrs Birbeck’s grieving husband, Tim Birbeck, previously said that his wife’s death has ‘broken’ him.
And of the couple’s two children, Steven Birbeck, 19, said the person who killed his mother had robbed her of the chance to become a grandmother.
Responding to posts on Facebook, Mr Birbeck, who is chairman of nearby Hapton Parish Council, told a friend he was ‘broken mate, it certainly hurt’.
He also praised police for the ‘speedy arrest and the way you have been with my family’, but added: ‘It is horrendous watching our children go through this.’
Hundreds of people had gathered at The Coppice in Accrington to search for Mrs Birbeck
One of the couple’s two children, Steven Birbeck, 19, said the person who killed his mother had robbed her of the chance to become a grandmother
Steven said: ‘I’ve always cherished the thought of seeing my mum smile.
‘The fact that she will never see me and my sister grow up and not going to be there on our wedding days and never see her grandchildren deeply saddens us. All taken by some selfish person who deserves what comes around.’
The discovery of the body brought to an end an extensive search. Thousands of people in the community were involved in handing out flyers and looking for her.
More than 19,000 people had joined a Facebook group to assist emergency services with the search for the worker.
Sentencing is expected to take place on Friday.
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Game of drones: Air corridor set up for flying postal service
Ambitions of an airborne postal service have moved a step closer due to a ‘flight corridor’ being created near Reading.
The five mile long aerial highway, the first commercial route of its type in the world, will be set up south of the Berkshire town by the end of the year, according to the Times.
Drone pilots will be able to to control them beyond their line of sight, which is not normally the case under existing regulations.
A new air traffic control system for unmanned devices will monitor the corridor and feed automated instructions to the drones to keep them away from others or change path if they’re in danger of crashing.
The corridor, a third of a mile in width will operate in the same normal airspace used by commercial jets, helicopters and light aircraft.
Ambitions of an airborne postal service have moved a step closer due to a ‘flight corridor’ being created near Reading
The move still needs to be rubber-stamped by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) but it hoped to be live next year in the first large-scale trial of its kind.
Small parcels, medical supplies and blood or tissue samples are examples of the kind of packages that could be delivered via drones in the controlled area.
Under current rules, drones must be flown away from built-up areas, within a pilot’s visual range, usually up to 1,600ft, and cannot soar higher than 400ft to avoid other aircraft.
However, the new system created by Altitude Angel, an aviation technology company based in Reading, monitors every drone movement and gives them the freedom to fly.
The air traffic control system will be created by using radar and multiple tracking sensors within the corridor.
Drone operators can send instructions such as ‘change flight path, hold, return or land’ but the control system is then able to intervene if the request is not followed for whatever reason.
The system will initially be tested using two drones, travelling in either direction simultaneously, before then being scaled up to create four drone lanes going each way and two or three highways at different altitudes.
Richard Parker, founder and chief executive of Altitude Angel, told the paper: ‘The size of this step cannot be underestimated.
‘Beyond visual line of sight automated flight in unrestricted airspace is a very significant barrier to overcome in order to realise the vision of mass-commercial drone usage.’
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ANDREW MARR tells how moral values of the Elizabethan age can lift us from our travails today
Tuesday, June 2, 1953: Coronation Day. With London decked out to celebrate its 27-year-old Queen, there was only one story in town. Or rather, two.
Just four days earlier, with perfect timing, two men, hacking through the snow, had made it to the top of the world’s highest mountain. Edmund Hillary was a tall Kiwi beekeeper with a huge, goofy smile. And his companion, Tenzing Norgay, was a devout Buddhist who had lived a life of profound physical poverty as a mountain bearer.
Reaching the summit of Mount Everest was, in the early 1950s, an extraordinary achievement. So all Britain was keeping one eye on this record-breaking attempt. But would they be aware of their Herculean achievement by the time the new monarch was crowned?
That responsibility fell to the young correspondent of The Times, James Morris, waiting at base camp nearly 18,000ft up. It was Morris, scribbling against the clock, who sent a coded message via a physical runner to the Silk Road village of Namche Bazaar.
From there it went by wireless to the British Embassy in Kathmandu. And so, thanks to Morris, The Times had its story in time for a Coronation special, to inaugurate what people called the new Elizabethan age.
Cheer: A party in Northampton marking the Coronation in 1953
It sounds like a tale from a vanished era of old-fashioned heroism. But there was a twist. Even at the time, Morris was wrestling with an issue that has since become very familiar. Ever since he was three or four years old, when he remembered sitting underneath his mother’s piano while she was playing Sibelius, he had felt he had been born into the wrong body. He should have been a girl.
So it was that 20 years later, he made the transition from man to woman, first with drugs and then through perilous surgery in Morocco. James Morris, successful journalist, travel writer and historian, became Jan Morris, ditto.
Today, trans rights and gender fluidity are the most fashionable and contentious aspects of Britain’s fractious 21st-century culture wars. But Morris’s story is a reminder that our recent history was never as straightforward as it’s often painted.
It’s also a small example of how, by digging a little deeper into our national history through individual stories, we can recapture some of its lost freshness.
So in my new book, looking at how Britain has changed since the Coronation in 1953, I’ve tried to tell the story of change through the histories of people such as Jan Morris, from explorers and writers to artists, scientists, musicians and entrepreneurs.
It’s easy to caricature the lost world of the 1950s. We’re often told that it was racist, misogynistic and homophobic, and that we lived in a dim, gaslit pre-liberalism.
And there is no doubt that aspects of post-war Britain were dingy.
The food was meagre and tasteless, the cities grimy, the clothes were unflattering, and industrial and domestic smoke hung in the air.
The moral atmosphere could be harshly censorious. This was still the Britain of the school cane, the hangman and the backstreet abortionist, who had wearily seen it all, knocking on the back door with her bag full of knitting needles and vinegar.
It’s easy to caricature the lost world of the 1950s. And there is no doubt that aspects of post-war Britain were dingy
Many single mothers gave up their babies for adoption. Pauline Prescott, then a hairdresser in Chester, had her first child in a Catholic home for unmarried mothers. The baby boy was later adopted by a family living many miles away in Wolverhampton.
She only made contact with him again when he was in his 40s, after a long and honourable military career. By then she was married to Labour’s Deputy Prime Minister. But it was not an unusual story.
The mother of the novelist Ian McEwan had her first baby during the war, while her husband was serving overseas, and placed an ad in her local paper: ‘Wanted, home for baby boy aged one month: complete surrender’. She handed the baby over to a couple at Reading Station. The boy, David Sharp, had a happy childhood and grew up to work as a bricklayer.
He lived a few miles away from the famous novelist, without either knowing about the other’s existence for half a century. It is an extraordinary story, but not as rare as we might think.
And yet a moment of common sense reflection tells us that the British of the early years of the Queen’s reign must have lived their lives in full colour, not black and white.
The young were brimming with youth. Every variety of sexual experimentation was vigorously attempted. And despite the newsreel depictions of an endless grey winter, spring kept coming around more or less on time every April.
The mother of the novelist Ian McEwan had her first baby during the war, while her husband was serving overseas, and placed an ad in her local paper
Britons may have more rights today, and be wealthier materially. But I don’t believe that necessarily makes us happier, more fulfilled or more virtuous.
Of course, there’s much we have lost. Churchgoing, for example, was once a genuinely collective activity.
Children attended Sunday school, where they were tutored in Bible stories and Christian morality. Their parents sat through sermons. Vicars, ministers and priests made regular visits to homes all over Britain, unannounced but expected.
But Christianity’s influence has endured, not least in our politics. Margaret Thatcher was the daughter of a Methodist lay preacher; Tony Blair converted to Catholicism after leaving office; Gordon Brown is the son of a Church of Scotland minister; Theresa May is an Anglican vicar’s daughter.
And among the rest of us, too, its legacy is far from dead.
Still, there’s no doubt that in the decades immediately after the Coronation, something changed. These were the years of the sexual revolution, the pushing back of the punitive state, the use and tolerance of drugs and an unmistakable decay in the social and religious hierarchies.
It was largely driven by a small group of Left-wing politicians, often inspired by their enthusiasm for America. A good example was the Labour and future SDP politician Shirley Williams, the daughter of the famous 1930s writer Vera Brittain.
Christianity’s influence has endured, not least in our politics. Margaret Thatcher was the daughter of a Methodist lay preacher
As a prisons minister in Harold Wilson’s government in 1966, Williams persuaded the authorities to send her to Holloway women’s prison, her identity kept secret. When her cellmates asked what she was in for, she explained that she was ‘on the game’.
It’s hard to imagine one of Boris Johnson’s ministers doing the same today.
Like many of her friends, Williams was inspired by the informality and democratic optimism she had seen in America, and wanted to build a similarly sunny world, without the crabbed, confined divisions of the British class system. But as so often, things didn’t always turn out how the liberal reformers anticipated.
Her friend and colleague Tony Crosland, also an admirer of all things American, dreamed of reforming Britain’s schools on a truly egalitarian basis.
But instead of taking on private schools like his own alma mater, Highgate, he decided to attack the state grammar schools, which had allowed so many working-class children a ladder up.
In a celebrated and notorious scene, he told his wife Susan: ‘If it’s the last thing I do, I’m going to destroy every f***ing grammar school in England.’
But he failed. Today there are more than 160 selective, state-funded grammar schools left in England.
And the argument about school selection rages on to this day, like a football kicked from one end of the muddy pitch to the other, with no goals being scored.
Perhaps the most underrated change of the 1960s, though, was the collapse of our self-image as the workshop of the world.
Manufacturing had shaped the look, sound, smell and social structure of the country for more than a century.
When the Queen’s reign began in 1952, Britain produced a quarter of the planet’s manufacturing exports. Today we make just two per cent. We were a more sinewy people back then. The world of factory work disciplined generations of British men, toiling on hot and dangerous production lines under the watchful eyes of their managers and shop stewards.
But even as Shirley Williams and Tony Crosland were climbing the political ladder, things were beginning to go wrong.
A good example is the story of Birmingham Small Arms Company (BSA), then the largest motorcycle manufacturer in the world, but also famous for its Daimler and Lanchester cars.
Its managing director, Sir Bernard Docker, had succeeded his father Dudley in 1944. He married a Birmingham dance hostess, Norah, who became a national celebrity for her flamboyant, outspoken and provocative style. The doting Docker gave her a series of specially built Daimlers, such as the 1955 Golden Zebra, which sported an ivory dashboard and upholstery covered with zebra skin. As Lady Docker drily explained: ‘Zebra, because mink is too hot to sit on.’
But the Dockers were setting themselves up for a fall. Sir Bernard was spending too much time having fun and not nearly enough on the company.
And at a tumultuous meeting in London on a rain-soaked spring day in 1956, he was sacked as chairman for his extravagant expenses claims.
But it was too late. With its market share falling, BSA was sliding towards disintegration.
Daimler was sold to Jaguar four years later. By 1972, overtaken by cheaper and more reliable Japanese competitors, even the motorcycle business was defunct.
Not all British businesses fared as badly as BSA. The success of entrepreneurs such as James Dyson should remind us that we’re still the sixth largest economy in the world, with our GDP per capita about level pegging with the French and not very far behind Germany.
And in other ways, British innovators have changed the world. Think of Gerald Durrell, whose revolutionary zoo changed the way we think about animal welfare; or Anita Roddick, whose Body Shop led the charge for a more ethical capitalism.
But if we’re to thrive after Brexit, we’ll need to banish any trace of the Dockers’ complacency.
Our industries will need to be hungrier and harder, and take inspiration from our undoubted success in cultural and creative areas, and our ingenuity in computing and engineering.
Yet when I look back across our Queen’s reign, I’m reminded that there’s more to life than making money — important as that is. This has been the age of market values. Relentless consumers, we’ve been schooled to see most of our human exchanges in terms of price and profit. Too often we measure success by wealth, and confuse happiness with cool stuff.
But should we really judge our happiness by what we consume —holidays, consumer goods, large houses? And if a society comes to judge success by personal wealth, how can it deal with the large majority who will feel forever bruised and excluded?
Finishing this book during the coronavirus lockdown, I watched as we rediscovered the common notions of fairness, decency and mutual respect that were so familiar to our 1950s predecessors.
I was inspired by the stories of people like Captain Sir Tom Moore, with his record-breaking walk to raise money for the NHS; or Marcus Rashford, the Manchester United and England footballer, who raised around £20 million to supply three million meals to vulnerable people, and persuaded the Government to provide free school meal vouchers during the summer.
Here, I believe, is where we can learn from our past selves — from the more consciously moral, frugal, hard-working and optimistic Britain Jan Morris knew so well.
I was inspired by the stories of people like Captain Sir Tom Moore, with his record-breaking walk to raise money for the NHS
Yes, it was in many ways bigoted and rigidly hierarchical. But a decent future means taking the best of the past, ditching the mistakes and starting again.
Today, we have to learn to work harder, while being more generous in our global outlook, kinder to neighbours who look and sound different to ourselves, and more restrained in our personal tastes.
Does that sound impossibly pious? Or simply impossible? Then we should remember the struggles and achievements of our grandparents and parents. They were there first. They can teach us still.
n Elizabethans by Andrew Marr is published by William Collins £20. © Andrew Marr 2020. To order a copy for £17, go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193. Free UK delivery on orders over £15. Offer price valid until October 3, 2020.
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US farming is tasteless, toxic and cruel – and its monstrous practices have no place here
British farming and food production are a remarkable success story. In recent years, this sector has been at the forefront of a revolution that’s transformed the quality of our food — and acted as a guardian of our countryside.
Through the vision and dedication of our farmers, Britain is increasingly a global leader in animal welfare, environmental protection and high standards of produce. Now all these achievements are at mortal risk. As we prepare to leave the European Union at the end of this year, our impressive agricultural system could soon be wrecked by ruthless competition and a flood of cheap imports.
The most serious threat comes from the U.S., whose vast and unwieldy farming industry is far less regulated than ours.
In the name of efficiency, it has built a highly mechanised, intensive and shockingly cruel approach which keeps animals in conditions so appalling it’s hard for us in the UK to grasp. Meanwhile, an arsenal of chemicals that are banned here are also deployed on these poor creatures.
It is not the sort of produce that should be allowed to swamp our own. When Brexit supporters spoke of ‘taking back control’, they did not envisage the destruction of British farming caused by mass-produced goods soaked in chlorine and cruelty.
In an attempt to prevent this grim eventuality, a last-ditch battle is under way at Westminster aiming to establish essential safeguards in post-Brexit Britain.
It’s all part of Britain’s deep and enduring compassion for animals. We have 25 million free-range hens here, more than any other country — and more free-range pigs than anywhere in Europe
As the Agriculture Bill — which sets out a new domestic, post-Brexit alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy — makes its way through Parliament, MPs in the Commons and peers in the Lords have tried to impose amendments to keep Britain’s high standards of animal husbandry and environmental care. So far the Government has rejected all such proposals. Desperate to reach a trade deal, ministers seem unwilling to block the hugely influential U.S. food and agriculture lobby from gaining access to our market.
Their argument is that, in the brave new world of deregulation, consumers will enjoy more choice and, crucially, will have access to ‘cheap’ food. But cheapness will come at a huge cost to our health, our countryside, our rural economy and our animals.
The reality is that choice will be restricted — because British farmers and producers will find it impossible to compete. From the supermarkets to takeaways, this ugly juggernaut of American food will sweep all before it.
The Agriculture Bill is about to go to the final stage of its passage through Parliament. There is one last chance for legislators to stop a free-for-all from which our agriculture would emerge the loser.
As someone who has covered the food industry for 20 years presenting The Food Programme on BBC Radio 4, I am deeply alarmed at the prospect of the advances British food has made in recent decades going into reverse.
Before Covid, British food was flourishing as never before. I think of the surge in high-quality bakeries, of our farmhouse cheeses beating rivals across the world — we produce more than France.
Even McDonald’s UK now uses free-range eggs and organic milk and recently won an RSPCA award for its animal welfare standards. I need hardly say it’s not how McDonald’s operates in the U.S.
It’s all part of Britain’s deep and enduring compassion for animals. We have 25 million free-range hens here, more than any other country — and more free-range pigs than anywhere in Europe.
In frequent talks with farmers, I have been struck by how they see themselves, not just as producers, but as custodians of the land, a vital role they fill with imaginativeness in an age of mounting concern about climate change.
The U.S. farming model is completely different. Its aim is not to work with nature but to dominate it. Industrialised and chemicalised, the entire system is a monument to the denial of biology.
I am not in any way anti-American — I’ve lived across that wonderful country in Indiana, California, Massachusetts and New York. I’m married to an American: my son and his family live in Pennsylvania.
It’s precisely because I visit regularly, and have seen at first hand the harshness of U.S. food production, that I feel so strongly.
The ‘chlorinated chicken’ has rightly become a symbol of U.S. farming at its worst, but few ask why poultry has to be washed in chlorine before it can be sold. It is because the birds are kept in such over-crowded squalor and so pumped with chemicals during their brief, unfortunate lives.
The same applies throughout American industry. Even the British Government’s farming Secretary George Eustice has admitted U.S. animal welfare law is ‘woefully deficient’. Pigs are reared in grotesquely inhumane battery farms. More than 60 million are treated with the antibiotic Carbadox, which promotes growth and is rightly banned in the UK.
Similarly, U.S. cattle are fed steroid hormones to speed growth by 20 per cent — the use of such chemicals has been illegal in Britain and the EU since 1989. And as the cattle are kept in vast confined feeding pens, they need regular antibiotics.
Incredibly, some staff processing carcasses at huge meatpacking plants wear nappies because they are not allowed time off to go to the lavatory. In arable production, pesticides are used on a scale far beyond anything in Britain. In recent decades, the U.S. has banned or controlled just 11 chemicals in food, cosmetics and cleaning products — the EU has banned 1,300.
Polar opposites: Cows in a British field, and in beef pens in Texas
In U.S. farming there’s almost no effort to mitigate climate change yet here the National Farmers’ Union is committed to achieving zero carbon production by 2040. What will happen to that commitment if cheap U.S. food floods in?
The U.S. genetically modified crops to be resistant to Roundup weedkiller — but after weeds grew resistant to Roundup and flourished, one U.S. farmer told me proudly crops were now engineered to be resistant to the infamous Agent Orange, a defoliant used by the U.S. military to kill vegetation in the Vietnam War.
Environmental devastation and health problems — including disabilities to as many as a million people — were caused in Vietnam by Agent Orange. Is this a road we want to go down in Britain?
The so-called cheapness of American produce is a delusion. These farming methods carry a heavy price in quality and health. A battery chicken is tasteless compared to an organic one, just as factory-farmed salmon has nothing of the flavour of wild.
Cheap, low quality foods have brought with them disturbing health problems including obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
The coronavirus crisis proved the need for resilient supply lines. But that cannot be achieved if we ruin our own domestic agricultural system and become reliant on imported food.
In World War II, when the survival of the nation was imperilled, the Government attached huge importance to domestic food output, reflected in the propaganda campaign ‘Dig for Victory’ and the Women’s Land Army. We need that collective spirit today.
It would be stupidity beyond measure to obliterate our farming industry for a short-term, unbalanced trade deal with the U.S.
A trade deal without agricultural safeguards would be a calamity for British farming and our prosperity. One in eight jobs in Britain is in food supply, while food exports brought in £9.6 billion to the economy. All that will be lost if cut-throat competition prevails.
And a vital part of our heritage will also be lost. From the robust imagery of John Bull as a yeoman squire to William Blake’s Jerusalem, with its evocation of our ‘green and pleasant land’, the countryside has always held a central place in our national soul. It must not be sacrificed on the altar of illusory cheapness or trans-Atlantic subservience.
n Sheila Dillon presents BBC Radio 4’s The Food Programme.
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